Helping Brothers and Sisters of Children with Special Needs
“I have had my embarrassing moments with Lisa,” says Danielle Bilger, a 20-year-old from Sandusky, Ohio, whose 26-year-old sister has cerebral palsy. “One time, she had an accident at night during a sleepover party when I was about 13. She came downstairs carrying her own sheets and getting ready to take a shower at about 2 AM. All my friends were still awake, and you could easily tell what the problem was. So instead of making up an excuse, I [was] straightforward about my sister’s disability and what it includes, and I told them that when she gets sick, her body doesn’t react fast and it never truly reacts the same as ours,” explains Bilger.
Information on special needs and how to talk to your children about them is readily available to parents from service providers, other parents, teachers, the Internet, and a barrage of other sources; but young children depend on their parents to get facts, define new terms, and answer any questions they may have about what’s going on with their brother or sister. “Provide sibs with age-appropriate information from a variety of sources,” advises Meyer, who also says this exchange doesn’t necessarily have to be dinnertime discussion. Even just a few minutes during a ride to school or before tucking your child into bed can be a great time to see what’s on their mind and let them know you’re always available to talk.
Dealing with Guilt
Despite open communication, siblings are often going to feel isolated, scared, or sad. On the other hand, they might feel jealous of the attention their brothers or sisters with special needs get from their parents. Then they experience guilt over their feelings of jealousy and anger, and some even worry that they “have what their brother or sister has,” says Meyer. Guilt can also come from feeling like they caused the disability or that it’s not fair that they can do things their brothers and sisters cannot. Bilger admits to being an overachiever because she feels she has to make up for what her sister can’t do. “I would get straight As in school, join every sport and extracurricular activity in and outside of school, and excel in everything I did just because Lisa couldn’t do it. And I felt, and still feel, like I have to pick up her slack,” says Bilger.
Older siblings who eventually move out and go to college may feel bad about leaving the burden of caretaking with their parents, says Meyer. In all these cases of guilt, it is crucial that parents “have the best possible communication with the typically developing sibs,” explains Meyer. He suggests fostering an atmosphere of reflective listening in which “conversation door-openers” allow siblings to openly speak about what’s on their mind and share their feelings with their parents.
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